Graphic novel review: Head Lopper & The Island and the Plague of Beasts by Andrew Maclean with Mike Spicer

(cover image courtesy Image Comics)

Being late to the party is not always a bad thing.

Especially in the near-eternal world of pop culture where, true, the latest and greatest thing does burn brightly and brightly in the ephemeral digital zeitgeist, creating the impression that once it’s gone, that’s it in terms of anyone else discovering or enjoying the graphic novel, book, TV show or movie.

But the thing is, 15-seconds-of-fame Warhol-ian spotlights aside, picking up something like Head Lopper & The Island and the Plague of Beasts (Vol. 1) over five years after its debut (5 October 2016 in quarterly form) does not in any way, shape or form diminish its appeal.

Diving into this idiosyncratically one of a kind venture you are immediately struck by the timelessness of its in-your-face, colourful and evocative fantasy storytelling and its cheeky sensibility which has a very serious protagonist, Norgal the Head Lopper (he does precisely what the title suggests) squaring up against some seriously deadly foes while accompanied by the severed head of wisecracking Agatha the Blue Witch, who isn’t happy about being separated from her body or being held captive by Norgal and let’s him know at every mirth-making opportunity.

In the first expansive issue of Head Lopper, we saw our largely taciturn hero on a sizeable quest to rid the Isle of Barra of fearsome monsters including GIANT wolves and huge, towering sea serpents (servants of the Sorcerer of the Black Bog) colliding with a grand conspiracy to do some very evil things by mysterious and not-so-mysterious players in the background, all of whom are doing their best to manipulate outcomes to their own power hungry ends.

He’s resolute and not easily bested and while he is very, very serious, he is also capable of being friends with people – witness Orin the blacksmith with whom Norgal actually laughs; no, really, he does – and loyal to people in a way that makes him exactly the kind of hero you want to read about.

Scattered through all that questing and lopping of heads, which happens a LOT, because Barra, ruled over by infant King Aaron, ably supported by Lady Mother Queen Abigail, who is struggling with the death of her husband, the former King Aaron, is seemingly overrun with ghouls and nasty big beasties, one of which requires a virgin sacrifice which Norgal quickly puts a stop to, is a LOT of fun.

Seriously, a lot of quirky, silly fun which you might not expect as first you turn the pages to be greeted by Norgal in a huge fight in the harbour of Barra’s main town.

(cover image courtesy Image Comics)

The brilliance of writer and illustrator Andrew Maclean is that he combines the earnestly intense with the lightheartedly silly seamlessly resulting in an eminently satisfying story which treats its fantasy elements with the utmost respect while using artwork and quippy wordplay to superb narrative effect.

Published as a quarterly publication rather than a monthly one quite deliberately – “… I’ve decide to release the HEAD LOPPER comic on a quarterly basis because I think a longer book can make a better book. Here’s what I want in every issue of HEAD LOPPER: long fights, dark jokes, creepy atmosphere, short plots and long plots, and comfortable conclusions that, hopefully, still leave you wanting more. The standard comic length would make me cut something short.” (Image Comics via Wikipedia) – Head Lopper is a veritably enticing swirl of really cool idea, engaging characters, darkness and light, humour and soberness, all wrapped in one of those gloriously big stories into which you will happily and completely lose yourself.

Bolstered by a taut, clever narrative that never lets up but doesn’t feel overly busy for all that, the artwork is a transportive, world-building joy, the Isle of Barra coming alive with the good and the bad, and all the action scenes rendered so vividly that you would swear the characters are moving right before your eyes.

Maclean also manages to make Head Lopper look invitingly cutesy while keeping it enthrallingly dark and tense, an inspired approach that gives the graphic novel an accessibly lighthearted look and feel that increases its appeal, especially to those people who may not necessarily pick up a very intensely dark story if it also looked the part.

Head Lopper & The Island and the Plague of Beasts is one of the best graphic novels to come along in quite some time, all brutal adventuring fun with portent and vicious power-mongering into which a gruff but goodhearted and brilliantly capable – watch those bloodied heads fly! Whoosh! Plop! – protagonist steps, besting all who come his way but not without obstacles aplenty, none of which seem to stand in the way of him getting what he wants, told with artwork that is perfectly married with a story that gives and gives and gives again, all while reminding you that big ass swords are best avoided, especially if you are a denizen of dark and fetid places.

(cover image courtesy Image Comics)

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